Mountain Magic in Central Vermont
Published: April 2009
By Shane Mitchell
The snow-covered mountains of central Vermont provide Shane Mitchell with opportunities to enjoy the state’s cold-weather comforts and outdoor pursuits.
Not ten minutes into Vermont, after crossing over Lake Champlain from New York, my SUV skids into a deep ditch filled with snow. I make it worse by gunning it in reverse, with the tires kicking up gravel and the cab tilting at a dangerous angle. Dusk advances early in winter this far north, and I am still on the wrong side of the Green Mountains, with a winding drive on steep roads ahead. Just then, a battered truck swoops up behind me, and a wiry man in overalls jumps out and tosses a chain in my direction. After we attach the tow hook, he reverses and quickly hauls my sorry chassis out of the snowdrift. Before I can thank him properly, my rescuer is on his way and I am left staring at the glow of his taillights. Vermonters are like that. Not ones for words.
Bette Davis, playing a tart-mouthed New York socialite in the 1939 film Dark Victory, referred to Vermont as "that narrow, pinched-up state on the wrong side of Boston." (Kinder eyes might liken its shape to, say, a leg of lamb.) Geographically, Vermont has a mountain range running right up its middle to the border it shares with Quebec's Eastern Townships, with narrow but fertile valleys on either side. The reason for its "pinched-up" appearance is in part due to the squeeze applied during an early land grab by the adjoining colonies of New York and New Hampshire, which squabbled over this mountainous grant until—and this was prototypical—Vermont settlers determined to go their own stubborn way, especially against the "Yorkers," who had levied burdensome taxes, by declaring an independent republic in 1777. These rabble-rousers included a backwoods farmer named Ethan Allen, leader of a civilian militia known as the Green Mountain Boys, which also played a significant role in the war with a common enemy of all Yankees, regardless of their location vis-à-vis Boston.
Despite my dubious status as a native "Yorker," I've been crossing the Vermont state line since the early 1970's, when family friends bought an inn with a bunny slope in the backyard. That's where I first learned how to snowplow, with bamboo poles and wooden skis strapped to my rubber galoshes. It's also where my downhill career was nearly cut short when the rope tow practically yanked my arms out of their sockets. Since then, I am grateful to say, ski equipment has advanced, both for transporting flatlanders, as native Vermonters call everyone else, to the top of their mountains, as well as for propelling us back down, preferably with some semblance of grace and as few face-plants as possible. Ironically, despite efforts in recent decades to make it more accessible (two four-lane highways, the expansion of the Burlington International Airport), Vermont steadfastly remains caught in a uniquely providential time warp. Imagine a boho Shangri-la populated by graying hippie poets, pastoral activists, and youthful disciples of snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter, of Stowe. Especially in winter, when snow blankets the state, everyone seems resolved to a slower pace in the Green Mountains. So it is during this somnolent season, when ice goblins rime granite ridges and only state license plates remain evergreen, that I am regularly drawn back to the woods of Vermont.
Specifically, I go to the woods of central Vermont, including a tract of Green Mountain National Forest where inky streams lie crusted with ice, silent glades are marked by wild-turkey tracks, historic towns have white-steepled churches, and ski resorts have resisted the temptations of overdevelopment. My two favorites, Sugarbush and Stowe, have both received major upgrades recently. Former Merrill Lynch International chairman Win Smith heads up a posse of investors committed to maintaining the crunchy zeitgeist at Sugarbush. A new post-and-beam base lodge, restaurant, and slopeside condominiums disguised as a supersize barn complex have opened in the past year. (Smith soothed agitated environmentalists with a construction stunt any Luddite would love: employing a team of horses, rather than bulldozers, to clear timber for the original site.) Not to be outdone, Stowe has added a gondola that connects its two mountains; by spring, the 139-room Stowe Mountain Lodge at Spruce Peak will complete its new alpine village. More than 2,000 acres surrounding the site have been put into a permanent conservation easement. And that's actually not all that extraordinary. In 1970, the Vermont legislature passed the Land Use and Development Law, which continues to restrict just about everything vulgar and unsightly man can impose—billboards, subdivisions, congested highways, wind turbines, cell towers, neon lights—on a natural or historic landscape. Considered to be a legislative backlash to an encroaching highway system that was funneling second-home builders "from away," namely New York and Boston, into the state's southernmost communities and resorts, like Stratton and Killington, the bill was a revolutionary attempt to exert control over rampant development. Not all Vermonters are thrilled with the restrictive covenants that have kept their state remarkably free of visual clutter, but I can't help being jealous while heading north to the Mad River Valley on roads lacking all evidence of single-wide trailers, big-box retail, and strip malls. Of course, this may also be explained by Vermont's total population: 623,908 (given the state's area, that works out to an average of almost 10 acres per person).
When I finally stop for my first night at Twin Farms, in Barnard, and check in to an idealized log cabin (crackling fires and a downy comforter on the hickory-twig bed; hot chocolate and handmade marshmallows), it's far too dark to see the backwoods. The next morning, however, a dusting of fresh snow makes me eager to haul my snowshoes out of the trunk andawait tracker John Barnes inside the Barnard General Store, just one mile down the road. From the soda fountain at the rear, I can look across to Silver Lake, frozen solid and strewn with ice-fishing shacks. About 20 yards out from the shoreline, a chubby effigy stuffed with straw named George is wearing a blue flannel plaid shirt and clutches an American flag. Every year for the past 30, he has sat on the ice from the time the lake freezes over until mud season. As customers stock up on sausage and flax crackers, they place a two-dollar bet against the time and date he will sink during the spring melt. Last year, it was after midnight on April 23. George's slushy demise has a gallows-humor tenor that appeals to those all-too accustomed to the vagaries of winter. The weather-wise recipient of the 50/50 pot usually walks away with a few hundered dollars. The other half is donated to local charities.
Barnes arrives, and we head outside to his pickup. A stocky man, he has a graying ponytail and callused hands. Raised in Barnard by his grandmother, he started trapping mink and muskrat at six years old. Now, Barnes works part-time as a wilderness guide, specializing in animal tracking. We drive to a trailhead for Nyes Swamp, where Barnes straps on an old pair of sinew-and-ash bentwood snowshoes that are easily three times bigger than my dinky aluminum Tubbs. "These don't trap snow or slush the way new ones can," Barnes says, crunching along a logging road as a pack of snowmobilers zooms past. We quickly leave the joyriders behind by dropping into a steep vale. Drifts well around gray birches that rustle drily. Barnes indicates scarring on the trees where black bear have marked their territory. (Luckily, they hibernate.) Moose tracks cluster around browsed balsam fir. We climb over fallen logs to look for a porcupine den, and wind up in a frozen fen dammed by beaver. The woods are so still, I can hear falling snow crystals as they begin to fill our own tracks. We turn back toward the logging road, and Barnes points out a ruin. "Farmers way back in places like this scratched out a living. Sometimes, the 'overseer of the poor' would come around with food and check on them." (New England towns would elect this official, whose title originated in the Elizabethan era, to supervise a 19th-century form of welfare known as "outdoor relief," a euphemism for the poorhouse system.) Frugal Vermonters were generally reluctant to participate.
On the way to Woodstock, I catch up with Jean and Albert Conklin, friends who own a farm in nearby Pomfret. It once belonged to her parents; the couple took it over in 1952. Both in their eighties, they would never consider moving south. I note how certain older Vermonters seem to thrive in the cold. "Every hundred years we get a new batch of people here," Albert remarks. Despite his long residence, some of his neighbors still consider him a flatlander. "Once in a while," he smiles, "I'm mistaken for a Vermonter."
Just opposite the Conklins' farm is the site of America's first rope tow, erected by Wallace "Bunny" Bertram on Gilbert's Hill in 1934. (Two years later, he opened another lift on adjacent Hill Number Six, which later became known as the Suicide Six ski area.) Operated with an old Model T Ford engine, it hauled skiers up a gentle slope. When I ask Jean whether she rode it as a girl, she replies, "I never did. It cost too much. We skied hills around the farm, but we had to trudge up."
Perhaps the best-known hill farm in central Vermont is the Billings Farm & Museum, on Route 12 outside Woodstock. During early winter, it's open only on weekends, but the chance to get up close and personal with a working herd of Jersey cows is tempting to those who don't regularly walk around in pastures wearing muck boots. Of course, not every Vermont hill farm has the late Laurance Rockefeller as its patron saint. He was married to Mary Billings French, whose family bought the property in 1871. The original owner, George Perkins Marsh, wrote a startlingly prescient ecological diatribe in 1864 titled Man and Nature and is considered to be America's first environmentalist. The Billings-Rockefeller land stewardship now extends beyond the farm to an adjoining 550-acre tract on Mount Tom with 20 miles of groomed trails.
Walking along the streets that radiate from Woodstock's village green, it's impossible to separate the greater landscape from the munificent influence of Laurance Rockefeller's local foundation, which also oversees the Suicide Six ski resort and the Woodstock Inn. The town is unquestionably a primer on architectural preservation. Federal, Greek Revival, and late-Georgian houses (mostly painted white) stand elbow to elbow. The library has stained-glass windows designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany; hanging in several church steeples (also all white) stand bells most likely forged by Paul Revere and his progeny. On Elm Street, F. H. Gillingham & Sons stocks plaid woolen Johnson Mills hunting pants, wooden train whistles, and sleigh bells. The Town Crier blackboard announces community suppers and sing-alongs. A covered wooden bridge crosses the Ottauquechee River. Vermont senator Jacob Collamer, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, once said, "The good people of Woodstock have less incentive than others to yearn for heaven." Damned right.
I detour through the village of Warren and duck up Common Road, which is lined with old sugar maples that already bear galvanized tap buckets on their trunks. To the west looms Mount Ellen, slightly over 4,000 feet in elevation. Anyone spoiled by heli-skiing in the Rockies might not give it a second glance. That would be a mistake.
John Egan has the scorched cheeks and chapped lips of one who has been exposed to harsh conditions too long, his official title is chief recreation officer at Sugarbush. Essentially, he is in charge of "all things snow" for the resort's adventure learning center. During the off-season, he occasionally leads extreme ski expeditions to Greenland and Patagonia.
Maybe it's the sign at the lift line that intimidates me. It warns: Rocks, Stumps, Cliffs, and oh, did we mention rocks? Western skiers have a hard time admitting that their Yankee cousins are sometimes more competent mountaineers, gliding through deep woods and tight chutes. But the view from Lincoln Peak proves worth the trek.
Right up the road, on Stark Mountain, Mad River Glen is an obstinate throwback. It is owned cooperatively by shareholders whose vehicles are plastered with red-and-white ski it if you can bumper stickers. Mad River Glen has no snowmaking equipment. Boarding is banned. No one in the cafeteria objects to brown-bag lunches. Last winter was the final season for the famous single chairlift. It was replaced by, no kidding, another single chairlift. Atop Stark Mountain, the Appalachian Gap crosses over the Long Trail, blazed by the Green Mountain Club between 1910 and 1930. The nation's oldest long-distance trail, the 270-mile footpath follows the Green Mountains' main ridge all the way to Canada. The Club's 1921 guidebook advises that "No person should attempt to tramp the Trail without a light axe and a good compass. Woolen underwear is also important as you will sweat heavily; it prevents chill on the mountain tops where winds are keen..." Since I possess none of these useful items, I keep warm with a bowl of thick chili and a pint of Single Chair Ale in General Stark's Pub.
Does a manifesto taste good?That's a question I consider at every meal in central Vermont, over Yankee pot roast at the Barnard Inn, sunny eggs in the Farmers Diner, lamb stew at Cliff House, and smoked LaBelle Farms duck breast with pinot noir–braised cranberries at Hen of the Wood. The New Oxford American Dictionary recently declared locavore—one who seeks out locally sourced food for its freshness and sustainability—its new word of the year. It's not really surprising that a state that rigorously protects its green spaces would be an equally avid supporter of ethical native foodways. Righteous chefs and fry cooks list their neighboring suppliers on recycled paper–and–soy ink menus.
Before returning to New York, I stop at the Trapp Family Lodge near Stowe. "How many Dartmouth grads does it take to dig a ditch?" cracks Sam von Trapp as he breaks from hard labor on a new snowmaking system for the cross-country trails on his family's 2,400-acre property. There seem to be an inordinate number of Ivy Leaguers in the dining room when we grab a cup of coffee. Trapp has returned from a wayward decade in Colorado and Chile as a private ski guide to shift the resort's emphasis, as he claims, away from its Sound of Music image. Walking out the Austrian-style lodge's front door, however, the first thing we both do is admire the surrounding peaks. Von Trapp's father, Johannes, opened North America's first commercial Nordic ski center here in 1968.
Heading down Mountain Road, I get stuck in a traffic jam caused by another local institution: participants in the Stowe Derby are gliding across the public recreation path. This annual 10-mile cross-country skiing event starts on the summit of 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield, the state's highest peak, and winds up in the village of Stowe, an architectural rival of Woodstock. Watching the colorful parade of stretch Lycra and Gore-Tex, I am content as a snowshoeing convert to no longer be bound by ski fashions, or even groomed trails. Alone in the pinched-up winter woods, no one cares what I'm wearing anyway.
When to Go
Vermont's snow season runs from approximately November to April.
How to Get There
Many carriers fly to Burlington. Driving from Boston or New York takes from three to six hours.
Where to Stay
Pitcher Inn. Doubles from $375.
Stowe Mountain Lodge. Doubles from $435.
Topnotch Resort & Spa This 68-room resort has an excellent spa and Nordic center. Doubles from $325.
Twin Farms A 300-acre retreat with 20 cottages. Doubles from $1,200, all-inclusive.
Villas at Trapp Family Lodge. Two-bedroom villas from $750.
Woodstock Inn & Resort A 142-room hotel on the town's historic green. Doubles from $175.
Where to Eat
American Flatbread. Dinner for two $35.
Barnard Inn Restaurant. Dinner for two $110.
Cliff House. Lunch for two $60.
The Farmers Diner. Breakfast for two $20.
Hen of the Wood. Dinner for two $80.
McCarthy's Restaurant. Breakfast for two $12.
What to Do
Billings Farm & Museum Rte. 12 at River Rd., Woodstock; 802/457-2355; billingsfarm.org; closed from March through April.
Mr. John's Green Mountain Guide Service 802/234-5219; from $150.
Vermont Ski Museum 1 S. Main St., Stowe; 802/253-9911; vermontskimuseum.org.
Where to Ski
Mad River Glen Waitsfield; 802/496-3551; madriverglen.com; full-day lift tickets from $35.
Stowe Mountain Resort Stowe; 800/253-4754; stowe.com; from $79.
Suicide Six Ski Area Pomfret; 802/457-6661; from $36.
Sugarbush Resort Warren; 800/537-8427; sugarbush.com; from $69.